How Gender Inequality Helped me Rediscover the Joy in my Career

Almost one year ago to the day, I applied to the Master of Design program at Swinburne University of Technology. At the time, my decision to head back to university felt more like me clutching at straws rather than a strategic career decision; I felt lost in my career, not even knowing where I was in the pipeline let alone where I wanted to be.

My anxiety made things worse. At times, my brain would be telling me to pull the emergency stop on my career and abandon ship while the other half was telling me to keep calm and carry on. It felt comparable to having five backseat drivers while I, the driver, just wanted to pull into the Maccas drive-through of life and veg out in the carpark. It wasn’t until my first semester back at university that I realised that it was the corporate landscape, rather than my anxiety, that was the catalyst for my career-panic.

I started my career working in manufacturing as a Marketing graduate, where, with the guidance from my boss, I was able to come into my own as a professional marketer. After two years with the company, I was offered a promotion; I was on the fast-track to the top. However, personal circumstance required that I move interstate and my career aspirations were put on hold.

Since then, my career has been in a holding pattern, with career-advancing opportunities knocking less frequently than before. I love my job and the people that I work with, but my fixed position had me asking the question “Is it me? Am I the problem”? It was at this point that my university coursework, serendipitously, provided the answer.

Every year, the Big Issue, a social enterprise that aims to provide work opportunities for the homeless, holds its Big Idea competition. The Big Idea is a national university competition where students are asked to submit a business plan for a new social enterprise that aims to support a disadvantaged community. For my business plan, I chose to look at women’s career progression and what I learned was interesting, yet troubling:

Women have been entering the workforce at the same rate as men for decades; however, women remain underrepresented in senior levels (Ely, Ibarra & Kolb 2011, p. 474, Workplace Gender Equality Agency 2017, p.1). This lag in career progression for women, when compared to their male counterparts, has been found, in part, to be due to Second Generation Gender Bias.

Second Generation Gender Bias is the powerful yet often invisible barrier to women’s advancement which arises from cultural beliefs about gender as well as workplace structures that inadvertently favour men (Ely, Ibarra & Kolb 2011, p. 475). Most women are unaware of having been victim to this type of discrimination, but it is what makes it harder for women to transition into leadership roles (Ely, Ibarra & Kolb 2011, p. 475).

Transitioning into a leadership role is fundamentally a question about identity and not the position one holds within an organisation (Ely, Ibarra & Kolb 2011, p. 765). Individuals will categorise both themselves and others based on stereotypes (Eysenck 2004, 657) making stereotypes directly linked to an individual’s identity which also applies when forming a leadership identity. “The social interactions in which people claim and grant leader identities…are shaped by culturally available ideologies about what it means to be a leader” (Ely, Ibarra & Kolb 2011, p.476), and in most cases this meaning is masculine.

The lack of women in senior leadership positions emphasises this ideology. Furthermore, the social and recursive process in which one attempts to claim a leadership identity often favours men anyway, as they are more likely to receive affirmation of their behaviour due to organisational hierarchies that confirm the leadership stereotype as being masculine (Ely, Ibarra & Kolb 2011, p. 475).

Compounding this, role models play an essential role in the successful development of young aspiring managers (Singh, Cinnicombe & James cited in Michailidis, Morphitouu & Theophylatou 2011, p. 4234) and are also critical to young female employees (Swiss cited in Michailidis, Morphitouu & Theophylatou 2011, p. 4235). Men in senior positions are less likely to take on proteges and, when combined with the lack of women leaders, this creates a significant barrier for women’s professional development as a group, globally (Michailidis, Morphitouu & Theophylatou 2011, p. 4243).

So where does this leave women? For women to progress, they must actively seek out professional development opportunities, such as leadership programs. However, current leadership “practitioners and educators lack a coherent, theoretically based, and actionable framework for designing and delivery leadership programs for women” (Ely, Ibarra & Kolb 2011, p.475) forcing them to adopt one of two approaches:

  1. “Add-women-and-stir” (Martin & Meyerson cited in Ely, Ibarra & Kolb 2011, p. 475) which assumes that gender does not matter for leadership development; or
  2. “Fix the women” (Ely & Meyerson cited in Ely, Ibarra & Kolb 2011, p. 475) which locates the problem with women.

Both of these approaches fail to address the male-favoured organisational hierarchies that women face in the workplace, nor do they provided women with the facility to develop leadership identities. Ely, Ibarra & Kolb (2011 pp.486-8) identified three fundamental principles for designing and delivering women’s leadership programs, and these are:

  1. Situate Topics and Tools in an Analysis of Second Generation Gender Bias
  2. Create a Holding Environment to Support Women’s Identity Work
  3. Anchor Participants on their Leadership Purpose.

It was this third and final point that truly resonated with me and, through personal brand work, I was able to solidify my personal brand values. It was from here that I was able to identify my career purpose which is ultimately to learn and create.

What I truly love about working in marketing, regardless of the industry, is testing hypotheses; taking customer data and working out what type of content resonates with customers and what doesn’t. It is from here that I realised that, as long as I am learning and making those dataful connections, this is what gets me out of bed in the morning and not the position I hold within an organisation. Although, Marketing Manager does have a nice ring to it.

Learn more about gender equality


  • Australian Government & Workplace Gender Equality Agency 2017, Australia’s gender equality scorecard: Key findings from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s 2016-2017 reporting data, Workplace Gender Equality Agency, viewed 16 August 2018, <;.
  • Ely, R.J, Ibarra, H & Kolb, D.m 2011, ‘Taking Gender into Account: Theory and Design for Women’s Leadership Development Programs’, Academy of Management Learning & Education, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 474-493.
  • Eysenck, M. W 2004. Psychology: An international Perspective. New York: Psychology Press Ltd.\
  • Michalidis, M.P, Morphitou, R.N & Theophylatou, I 2012 ‘ Women at workequality versus inequality: barriers for advancing in the workplace’, The International Journal of Human Resource Management, vol. 23, no. 20 pp. 4231-4252.